he 1930s and 1940s tried the strength and spirit of America's citizens and their commitment to the free economic system and to democracy. In these two decades, the country endured the Great Depression and played a major role in a global war fought on two fronts.
In 1929, wild speculation, the buying of stocks on margin, and factory and farm overproduction collided with a downward spiraling worldwide economy to end the boom with the stock market crash. The resulting Great Depression greatly affected the everyday lives of ordinary people and brought a sense of national and personal despair, fear, and failure. By 1932, thirteen million workers (one out of every four) had no jobs; banks closed, saving accounts disappeared, and families lost their farms, homes, and businesses. Nations around the world plunged into severe depression as well. Many countries opted for dictatorships and socialism. Although the Hoover administration did nothing to alleviate the consequences of the Depression, American citizens held fast to their democratic principles. A dynamic new president, Franklin Roosevelt, introduced the New Deal, which remained within the framework of democracy but changed the role of government to support its people.
Intent on its own problems, America turned away from the affairs of other nations and failed to recognize the dangers of foreign aggression engulfing the world. The United States maintained an official policy of neutrality while condemning the aggressive actions of Germany, Italy, and Japan. When Hitler began to systematically devour the rest of Europe, President Roosevelt offered moral and material support through arms sales to Britain and France. But isolationist sentiment remained strong among the American people and Congress.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 ended American neutrality and isolationism. The United States fought for nearly four years on the European and Pacific fronts. In 1945, as the war's end finally came in sight, Roosevelt met with Allied leaders Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin at Yalta to discuss the postwar face of Europe. A few months later, Roosevelt, the only president elected to a fourth term, died unexpectedly. For twelve years, through the Great Depression and a grueling global war, he had led Americans to uphold democracy and defend freedom both at home and abroad.